Mandy Actors UK

EXCLUSIVE: Stanley Kubrick's exec producer reveals the director's filmmaking process

Jan Harlan began his 30-year working relationship with Stanley Kubrick as a researcher on the famously-cancelled project Napoleon, considered to be the greatest movie never made (although Jan hints that his epic could still see the light of day). Harlan went on to be an executive producer on Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and was an assistant to the producer for A Clockwork Orange (1971) as well as directing a feature-length documentary about Kubrick – Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001). 

Here Jan tells Mandy News about working with Stanley Kubrick and imparts priceless advice on how to succeed in the film industry.

26th July 2018
/ By Brian McGleenon

Stanley Kubrick producer Jan Harlan interview WARNERBROS

Kubrick needed cavalry for his expansive three-hour biopic on Napoleon. By the late ‘60s, Western European armies had disbanded their cavalry, but that wasn't the case in Eastern Europe, so in 1968 Jan Harlan accompanied Kubrick to Romania to organise the army scenes for the film. Jan would go on to work with Stanley until the great director's death in 1999. 

Jan describes Kubrick as a careful listener who valued the judgments of those around him but never strayed from his vision. He was not the fixated taskmaster that is often represented. He often took pragmatic decisions, collaborated, and loved the work of his contemporaries, such as filmmakers Carlos Saura, Edgar Reitz and Víctor Erice. Jan underpins this attitude by stating that, "the greater the artist, the greater their respect for others."

In speaking with Jan, it is evident that Kubrick was an artist who would not let his ego sabotage the world of the stories that he fell in love with. Kubrick was a self-aware filmmaker who knew his limitations. He never rated himself as a writer, but was fully aware of where his talents lay; in the manifesting of his cinematic vision. Jan describes a man that didn't take things too seriously; when it was observed that the extensive maze of corridors in The Shining would not realistically be contained within the wooden exterior of the Overlook Hotel, Kubrick smiled and said, “It is a ghost film, don't you know?” Something for the conspiracy theorists to chew on.

Jan also gives an impression of what Kubrick would be working on if he were here today. He suggests that Stanley would be making films about the present, possibly about the European Union, Putin, Trump, Brexit, because he "always lived in the present, he was always thinking about what was happening now." He also pays tribute to Kubrick's intellect, and his own modesty, adding "I wasn’t up to his speed or intellect. The only area where I could be on a level playing field with him was music and table tennis."


Jan, what kind of roadblocks does a young filmmaker face when starting out?


A short film can be most useful to prove talent but it needs to be really good. No money can be made with a short, but getting into a festival or winning a prize will help a great deal. I have examples of shorts which led to the financing of features and one can see why.

But one of the major roadblocks can be easy satisfaction, not being self-critical enough, assuming the talent is there. For a young film-maker who has a great property he or she is in love with, which is a pre-requisite, the problem is the agent.

***** Read our interview with Mission: Impossible – Fallout DP Rob Hardy *****



What is the best attitude to overcoming these roadblocks?


Passion and conviction – getting up and doing it again. The price of art is to fall in love with it. As soon as you love a piece of art, you own it.

Tom Cruise Stanley Kubrick WARNERBROS
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut

How did Stanley Kubrick pick himself up after failure?

He totally dismissed his first feature and simply made another one he liked. Some of his later films were not financially successful but this was less important to him than whether they passed his own severe test. But he was sad since he, as a good trustee, wanted the backers to get their money back. This is the problem all artists who are pushing the boundaries have.

For Stanley, he had to be in love with a story before choosing to adapt it into a film. Liking a story was not enough, there had to be a passion for it. Liking is objective, loving is subjective. That's how he would choose a project.

He was very interested in finding the invisible track within every story. Take that invisible track away and you have no screenplay. The invisible track could be the monolith in 2001 or the diamond in Titanic. This goes back to Greek drama, it's a track that the audience cannot explicitly see.

One film that Stanley took great pains to get right was Eyes Wide Shut, because he was dealing with the infinitely complex world of psychosexual dreams. There was no room for mistake. He believed that Eyes Wide Shut was his greatest contribution to film.


Can you tell us about the greatest moment in your film career?


I have no film career. I am not a filmmaker. I made some documentaries and films with students. That was easy and great fun, but I am not an artist. What was great was to serve a great artist and sometimes succeed in making a difference.


Do you think it is essential to go to a film school/ institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?


No. It may be essential for technicians since camera and sound techniques have changed so drastically - but for a writer/director, it is not. It may help and give him a good time and ideas, but great talent can’t be learned, only furthered. 

Learning counterpoint and harmony, reading and writing music etc maybe most important, but none of these things make a great composer. You know so well how easy it is to make a film. To make a good film is a different matter, and a good film that enough people want to see is rather difficult. A great film is almost a miracle.


Which films have inspired you the most?

Les Enfants du Paradis, by Marcel Carné, when I was a teenager and Heimat by Edgar Reitz in 1984.


Which book would you love to see made into a film one day?


Eric Brighteyes by Sir Rider Haggard.

Sign up to Mandy.com for free to see directing jobs.